Cracking the Oval Office's 'Men Only' Sign

The words "Madame President" may be ringing in their ears, but women voters are not necessarily heeding the call.

Long-time feminists, who for 30 years have been fighting for a crack at the Oval Office, say it would be a true symbol of equality if Americans elected a woman president – and a better country it will be when that happens.

“We’re still trying to crack it,” noted Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority (search), which along with the National Organization for Women, is backing the first female presidential candidate in 30 years, Carol Moseley Braun (search).

“She says in every speech she is going to take the ‘men-only’ sign off the White House – she’s very clear about that,” said Smeal.

“We think interest is high,” said Beverly Neufeld, executive director of the White House Project (search), for which the main goal is to springboard women into higher office. “I can say having a woman in the race and at the podium is very important.”

But not everyone sees success in national politics as a sign that women have arrived. Some say it is a positive by-product of feminism that women feel more inclined to consider a candidate’s resume and party affiliation, rather than the battle of the sexes, when they vote.

“At the height of the movement, women were still fighting for rights,” said Kimberly Schuld, author of “The Guide to Feminist Organizations.” A woman president then would have promised the entire package – an Equal Rights Amendment included.

“But by and large we have gotten the entire ERA passed through other laws,” she said. “You’re not going to rush over to Carol Moseley Braun just because she is a woman.”

Nancy Pfotenhauer, president of the Independent Women's Forum (search), said women like Smeal are living in the past.

“I don’t think anybody needs to be wearing a dress to speak to our needs,” she said. “Give me the person who is best for the job.”

Growing Support for Women Leaders

Recent national surveys suggest that Americans are more receptive to voting for a woman than ever before in the country’s history, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

In fact, some polls show that if Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton jumped into the primary race, she could surge past all of her male colleagues in the pack of candidates.

But Lake says the receptivity of voters may not translate into ultimate victory for the fairer sex – at least not today.

“Normally in times of war and recession, voters are less motivated to elect a woman,” she said. “I don’t think there is a tremendous appetite for it right now. I think there is an underlying assumption that a man would be better to beat (President) Bush.”

Quietly, women Democrats are saying that Moseley Braun, who became the first black woman senator in 1992, doesn’t have what it takes to overcome the crowded field of 10 Democrats jockeying to oppose Bush in November 2004. Others say she is just a stand in, paving the way for a Clinton run in 2008.

“She meets the criteria for being commander in chief, but she had to build the support – it takes years to build that support,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who teaches a course about women in politics at Georgetown University.  “I applaud her for running, though. I think it’s important.”

While political observers say Moseley Braun’s brush with financial and ethical scandal, which played a role in the loss of her Senate seat from Illinois in 1998, and her status as being more liberal than most of the other candidates, have marginalized her, others blame a culture that just won’t accept strong women gunning for higher office.

“She’s doing well in the debates and holding her own,” but “she’s in the middle of the pack getting no publicity,” said Smeal. “The press has deemed her unelectable.”

She said women are still struggling for equal representation in Congress, but are discouraged to run for office and to compete with the advantages men have in politics, like money and status.

“For many of us it’s been a life’s work,” Smeal said, suggesting that until there is equal representation, women’s needs will not be met in Washington.

Pfotenhauer, an economist, said that’s “a lot of hooey.”  She said women aren’t marching into politics in droves not because they can’t, but because they don’t want to.

“They (feminists) look for percentages to prove there is no discrimination. But there is free will, people self-select,” she said. “We (women) choose to go into fields where we feel we will succeed, and into fields that we like.”

'Thank You for Doing This'

For Moseley Braun, that field of choice has been politics. And despite her poor showing so far in the polls, she is nonetheless buoyed by the positive response she is getting on the campaign trail.

“The common response is, ‘thank you for doing this,” said her campaign manager, Patrick Botterman. “I think there were hurdles for all candidates breaking new ground.”

Pollsters said women might play an even greater role in the voting booth come Election Day 2004. While there is dispute over how big the so-called “gender gap” is between the Republican and Democratic parties, women can demand that candidates listen to what they say on the issues.

“I believe women are going to play a significant role in electing the next president of the United States,” charged Karen White, political director for Emily's List (search), a political action committee for pro-choice Democratic women candidates.

According to the bipartisan Battleground 2004 Poll, released Sept. 25 by Lake’s firm and the Tarrance Group, single women still tend to vote Democratic, while married moms have continued to trend more Republican. So, both parties will have to fight to gain the other before the next election.

“I think you will have both parties pandering to get the women’s vote,” said Pfotenhauer. “I would argue that the women’s vote has never been more important.”